Medieval walled town in Montenegro risks becoming the next Dubrovnik under pressure from cruise ship hordes
For years it was touted as Europe’s best-kept secret, its ancient stone houses and encircling medieval walls blissfully free of the tourist masses that have smothered Venice and Dubrovnik.
But the tiny town of Kotor in Montenegro now risks the same fate as those more famous destinations, as giant cruise ships disgorge huge numbers of visitors.
From being barely known a decade ago, the walled citadel, a World Heritage site located on the shores of a dramatic fjord, is now visited by around 430 cruise ships a year.
The old town, renowned for its well-preserved 14th century ramparts and Romanesque churches, is now almost entirely devoted to tourism, with some locals complaining that it has sold its soul to consumerism.
“There are now 85 to 90 souvenir shops in Kotor. The city has completely changed in the last decade because of the cruise ship industry,” Ana Nives Radovic, the head of the town’s tourism organisation, told The Telegraph.
“Over the winter, our only book shop, which was an institution, was closed down. We have to be honest and say that the cruise ship industry is not the perfect type of tourism; it does have negative impacts.”
As grocery shops, hairdressers, ironmongers and fruit sellers are closed down and replaced with knick-knack shops selling tourist tat, ordinary life becomes well nigh impossible – as long-suffering Venetians can attest.
Kotor shares much of the appeal of Dubrovnik – both came under Venetian domination and in both towns the winged lion of St Mark, the symbol of Venice, still looms over stone gates and battlements.
But Kotor now shares many of the problems of Dubrovnik, too – overwhelming numbers of cruise ship tourists who are smothering the life out of the place.
Around 10,000 arrive each day in summer, and although some head off on coach trips to other attractions around Kotor, the old town is often packed.
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Two years ago, Unesco threatened to revoke Kotor’s World Heritage status, warning that its appeal was being ruined by rampant construction.
In response, authorities imposed a temporary ban on construction, but the cruise ships continue to anchor in the bay, pouring thousands of day-trippers into the town.
"There were three of these obnoxious giants clogging up the bay yesterday," Peter Dragicevich, a travel writer for Lonely Planet, wrote on Twitter recently. "They’ve killed #Venice and #Dubrovnik. Here’s hoping they don’t kill #Kotor as well."
A victim of its own beauty, Dubrovnik also attracted hordes of visitors after being used for the filming of scenes in the HBO series Game of Thrones.
Kotor, located around 50 miles south on the Adriatic, may be heading in the same direction.
"Kotor was once known for being more authentic (than Dubrovnik), but now we’re in the same place," Sandra Kapetanovic from Expeditio, a local architecture group that advocates sustainable development, told AFP.
Like many other popular destinations around the world, Montenegro is trying to strike a delicate balance between making money from tourism and ensuring that the very things that tourists come to see are not snuffed out in the process.
Paul Bradbury, a British journalist who runs the websites Total Montenegro News and Total Croatia News, thinks that for now at least, the situation in Kotor is not as bad as that in Dubrovnik.
“Cruise ships in Venice and Dubrovnik are classic cases of ‘overtourism’.
“Kotor is nowhere near that at the moment, and I think that the authorities are sufficiently aware of the dangers not to let that happen.
“I have been in Kotor in peak season when a cruise ship was in, and I have been in Dubrovnik. And Split. Give me Kotor every time.”
Since splitting from Serbia and declaring independence in 2006, the country, which is about the size as Connecticut, has profited hugely from tourism and construction along the coast.
Tourism now accounts for nearly 25% of Montenegro’s GDP and many people have grown wealthy in Kotor from the cruise ship trade.
“We’re one of the richest cities in Montenegro per capita and without cruise ships, many people would never have heard of Kotor,” said Ms Radovic. “But we are no longer a city for living, we’re just a tourist destination.”